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There’s an old adage of a traveler seeking a room at an inn. The innkeeper informs him they’re booked for the evening. The traveler responds, “But if I were the king, would you be able to find a room for me?” “Well, yes,” the innkeeper responds, “but you are not the king.” “Agreed. But since the king will not be along here today, can I have the room you’d have given him?”

Even when the most seemingly black and white rules are in place, we all recognize that nearly every rule has an exception. 

(For those with playfully philosophical dispositions, I must of course note that if the rule, “Every rule has an exception” has no exception, it renders the rule paradoxical).

Novak Djokovic encountered such a rule recently. And, worse, he’s headed towards others like it. Djokovic hoped to utilize the “medical exemption” caveat of Australia’s rule, “No one enters the country unvaccinated without medical exemption.” To no avail.

On the same day this past Sunday when Australia finalized their ruling barring him from staying in the country to defend his Australian Open title, the French Open also became an issue. The Parliament of France approved a law requiring all who enter the country to show proof of vaccination. In the ministry’s words, “The rule is simple. The vaccine pass will be imposed…This will apply to everyone who is a spectator or a professional sportsperson…clearly, there’s no exemption.”

Rarely are rules “simple,” and without exemption, but this one seems to be an instance where that is the case. Likewise with Australia’s ruling. Not surprisingly, this has all instigated heated controversy and debate.

A case study in rules: Rookie of the Year

When disagreements regarding rules arise, they’re often of two sorts. One is the “bad rule” sort where the argument hinges on changing the rule. Back in 1995, I clearly recall heated discussions with my father and brother about Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Hideo Nomo’s winning Rookie of the Year that year. MLB qualifies a player as a “rookie” as having fewer than 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched, or 45 days on an active roster on an MLB team. That’s the rule. Nomo satisfied that criteria despite having played in Japan’s professional baseball league from 1990 to 1994 where he earned their Rookie of the Year and League MVP. Hardly a rookie, in any sense of the word, other than MLB’s.

But when asked whether Nomo deserved MLB’s Rookie of the Year award there was not much to debate: he was the best player who’d passed the clearly stated criteria. The MLB designated the criteria and that was the “simple” rule, no exemptions.

The other sort of disagreement involves the spirit of the rule. In Nomo’s case, the real concern centered around the belief of baseball aficionados that a 4-year starter in another professional league—not to mention, being their most valuable player—rendered one as not a rookie. Those four years of experience push him much closer to the veteran end of the spectrum.

Five years later, another Japanese professional league player, Ichiro Suzuki, won MLB’s Rookie of the Year award. Ichiro came into the MLB with nine years of professional baseball experience, and, he also won MLB’s MVP award that same year, leaving many fans and sportswriters truly flummoxed by the letter of the rule.

And so, two years later, when a third player from the Japanese professional league—Hideki Matsui, a three-time MVP of that league—played his first MLB season with great success, the baseball writers who cast the ballots for Rookie of the Year took a different tact. As Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribute wrote of his decision to not include Matsui on his ballot, “I just could not in good conscience pretend that Hideki Matsui, this great player from what I consider to be a major league, was on the same footing as a 22-year old kid trying to learn to hit a major league curveball.” That year’s winner of the Rookie of the Year, Angel Berroa, concurred, noting, “I’m glad that baseball writers took into consideration the difference in playing experience that each of us had before this season.”

Here, the voters went beyond the letter of the rule. In casting their votes they tacitly considered the spirit of the rule and of what a rookie truly means. In a sense, they disagreed with the rule and voted accordingly.

Australia’s rules, excpetions, and caveats

And so with Djokovic. The rule in Australia—and now, in France—on its face value seems quite clear: no entry without vaccination.

In Australia’s defense, they stuck to this rule closely throughout the pandemic, much to the dismay of many citizens and would-be visitors. But there certainly seemed to be an opening in the spirit of the rule, as Djokovic has already had Covid (twice) and thus did maintain some semblance of immunity—i.e. the actual reason and purpose for having such a rule in the first place.

Enter more grey area. Having passed the “medical exemption” caveat of the rule, Djokovic was then cleared to enter the country. But days later, the Immigration Minister asserted his discretionary authority and canceled the visa, denying his entry. He argued it would implicitly condone anti-vaxxers, providing a poster boy to continue their anti-vaxxing ways. 

In a sense, they cast their ballots outside of the rule. The rule is not, “Even with a medical exemption you may still be denied entry if we deem you famous enough to be a bad example for our citizens.” In this case, there was a seat at the inn, unless you’re the king.

To Australia’s credit, their decision flies in the face of a conflict of interest in their favor. They would have benefited greatly from hosting the world’s #1 player looking to win a tournament that would set a record for most Grand Slam victories, breaking the current three-way tie with two other greats, Nadal and Federer.

And to Djokovic’s credit, following 11 grueling days of court trials, uncertainty, and philosophical discussions over rules, he left gracefully, commenting, “I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love. I would like to wish the players, tournament officials, staff, volunteers, and fans all the best for the tournament.” Commendable words indeed, especially in light of even the king of tennis not being offered room at the inn in Australia.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that the Australian government shifted their position versus having the Immigration Minister make the change (h/t @JVRaines).

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The author of 5 books, including Amazon Top-500, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times. Spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe. Graduated from Stanford...